Viewpoint: JAVMA editor disparaged COE critics

More commentary on “An Open Letter to the Veterinary Community About COE Standards”

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In a remarkable display of biased reasoning, Dr. Kurt Matushek, editor-in-chief of JAVMA, defends his decision to reject a commentary by Dr. Ralph Brinster, a recipient of the National Medal of Science, and 19 other of the most distinguished names in veterinary medicine, including former members of the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education.

He states that disagreeing with the COE’s decisions to accredit certain schools is a “terrible insult” to COE members and to the schools’ faculty and graduates. In other words, the COE’s decisions must be regarded as infallible. Apparently, to criticize them is nonprofessional, defamatory, demeaning, malicious and perhaps even libelous.

Having never served on the COE, whose deliberations are supposedly strictly confidential, and with little or no background as an educator, Dr. Matushek must feel qualified to describe the COE’s procedures and to justify its decisions. He chooses to ignore the thousands of veterinarians who, as individuals or through their state veterinary medical associations, have called for separating the COE from the AVMA precisely because the COE has accredited substandard veterinary schools in nonresearch universities with no research base or teaching hospital, existing outside a community of scholars, and using a questionably monitored distributive model of clinical education.

As the Brinster letter notes, the rapid proliferation of “done on the cheap,” highly profitable schools has resulted in a rapid paradigm shift away from the nation’s high-quality, science-based system of veterinary medical education.

Citing the membership’s lack of trust in AVMA leadership, Dr. Ted Cohn, a recent AVMA president, has suggested that AVMA should be open to the possibility of separating the COE from AVMA. Moreover, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity has questioned whether the COE meets the U.S. Department of Education’s criterion for wide acceptance by the profession’s educators and practitioners.

Dr. Matushek fails to mention the main purpose of the Brinster letter, i.e., a constructive good-faith proposal that likely would put to rest the intense accreditation controversy and its divisive effects on AVMA’s relationships with many educators, practitioners and other sectors of the profession.

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Dr. Matushek’s attempts to draw a favorable comparison between the COE and the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), the accrediting agency for medical schools, but the comparison fails on the critical issue of autonomy and independence. Once LCME members have been appointed by the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges, LCME functions with its own staff and legal counsel, determines its own budget and makes its decisions without any contact with its sponsoring organizations.

In contrast, the COE has no input in determining its budget and no staff of its own, and it depends on AVMA staff to prepare and send its mandatory reports to the Department of Education. Dr. Karen Brant, director of AVMA’s Division of Education and Research, who reports to AVMA’s chief operating officer, heads the staff at every COE meeting.

While it is true the COE is exempt from functioning autonomously, its policies and procedures and AVMA bylaws “clearly delineate the council’s authority and governance and its autonomy within the AVMA. Importantly, these policies and bylaws explicitly define the council’s independence from the AVMA related to the council’s decision making in the accreditation of veterinary colleges.”

Moreover, Dr. Ron DeHaven, AVMA’s outgoing CEO, and David Granstrom, AVMA’s associate vice president and chief operating officer, have stated publicly that the council is separated from AVMA by a “firewall.”

Regrettably, it appears AVMA’s bylaws have been ignored for decades and that Drs. DeHaven and Granstrom’s statements about the existence of a “firewall” are demonstrably false. For example, I believe the veterinary college at Western University of Health Sciences would not exist today if the AVMA board had not intervened when the COE opposed Western’s application for reasonable assurance of accreditation. Predictably, this decision led to the proliferation of other highly profitable substandard veterinary colleges that were suddenly in a strong position to sue AVMA if denied their reasonable assurance.

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Responding to steadily increasing pressure from academics and AVMA practitioners, the COE recently made a few token changes and gestures, i.e., the COE discontinued the practice of allowing an AVMA board member to sit in on COE meetings and, with a $10,000 appropriation from the board, the COE appointed an independent legal counsel. Also, the board modified the membership of the AVMA COE Selection Committee by removing representation from the board and AVMA House of Delegates.

These small changes are far less than they seem for the following reasons:

The AVMA board continues to appoint the COE Selection Committee. It is hard to imagine the board would appoint anyone who disagrees with AV-MA’s policies, procedures, decisions, views and philosophy. This virtually assures that the Selection Committee will choose COE members who do not pose a threat to AVMA interests.

The COE’s selection pool of veterinary school site visitors consists mostly of former COE members.

In short, the deck is stacked against any meaningful change.

Dr. Matushek states that comparing the outcome of Western students with students who graduate from schools with teaching hospitals should be possible. Unfortunately, in veterinary medicine it is virtually impossible to obtain reliable data that address this difficult question. Testimonials are generally meaningless, and I believe that testimony from Banfield Pet Hospital is suspect because Banfield is an advocate for and major financial contributor to schools like Western and UNAM in Mexico.

It is my opinion that unlike his predecessor Dr. Janis Audin, who welcomed vigorous debate on any relevant subject, Dr. Matushek, an AVMA employee since 1992, uses his powerful position to deflect criticism from his employer, e.g., his insistence that every veterinary school accredited by AVMA COE has ipso facto met all of COE’s 11 standards, a statement I believe no COE member could substantiate.

Finally, I wish to make clear that I feel no animus toward graduates of schools without a teaching hospital or contemporary research base. I regard them as colleagues and wish them well.

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Dr. Marshak is professor emeritus of medicine and dean emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine

Originally published in the September 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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